Taylor Swift’s use of tentative speech

Credit: Pinterest user costryme

Students in LIN 471 Sociolinguistics conduct original research projects on style-shifting by a public figure. Abby Jarosziewicz, an English major with a concentration in Pop Culture, submitted her project on Taylor Swift in Fall 2019, and continued it as an Honors Option in Spring 2020.

Abby examined Swift’s use of “tentative speech”, first labeled by Robin Lakoff (1975) in the seminal book Language and Women’s Place. Lakoff identified numerous examples of hesitant or tentative speech, from which Abby chose two: hedges (e.g. “that was kind of rude”) and disclaimers (e.g. “I think that….”). The questions she asked were:

  • Does Taylor Swift’s overall use of tentative speech decrease over time as she grows in maturity, confidence and relevance?
  • Does Taylor Swift consistently use more tentative speech with male interviewers over time?

Abby found in her fall pilot project that Swift used more tentative speech with men at a single point her career. She hypothesized that this would remain the same throughout her career, because Swift’s power relationship with men has largely not changed. Abby also hypothesized, however, that overall Swift would use less and less tentative speech over time.

To test her hypotheses, Abby selected 12 video interviews conducted for 6 album release press tours (Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, Lover) from 2006 to 2019. For each album, one interview was conducted with a male interviewer and one with a female interviewer. 11 of 12 interviewers were white; interviewers were aged 30-65. Abby extracted from the videos every hedge and disclaimer, and calculated their frequency per minute of Swift’s total talk time.

Abby’s hypotheses were upheld. Swift’s overall rate of tentative speech declined across the press tours, from 1.5 per minute during the Taylor Swift launch, to 0.9 during the Lover launch. And at every time point except one, Swift uses more tentative language with the male interviewer than with the female interviewer. The exception is the press tour for Red, in which tentative speech peaks with both interviewer genders, exceeding even the rate for Taylor Swift, at 1.9 tokens/minute.

This study seems to support a narrative in the media about Taylor’s Swift’s growing comfort with public feminism, legal agency and political influence. Nonetheless, more controlled research is required for the findings to be confirmed. Abby points out that there are confounds in the data, such as inconsistency in the ages, ethnicity and familiarity of the interviewers; presence vs absence of a studio audience; and inconsistencies in the amount of talk time per interview and per time point.

Nonetheless, this was a great example of a student taking a class project a step further and asking new questions. Thanks for allowing us to share your results, Abby!

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